AWKA – 12 May 2020: Mr. Oseloka H. Obaze is a diplomat, writer, public policy and governance expert and politician. He was the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate in the Anambra State governorship election in 2017. A former United Nations official, he served as Secretary to the Anambra State Government under Governor Peter Obi and Governor Willie Obiano from 2012 to 2015. In this press encounter with Awka-based national media correspondents, Obaze responds to the Covid-19 issues and other pressing national challenges.
How have you been Sir, and how have you coped with the Covid-19 challenges and lockdown?
Obaze: By God’s grace I’m well. Thank you for asking. I have been in Awka since January. Like everyone else, I was affected by the lockdown and focused on keeping safe. Naturally, I have also worried about my family and dependents, staff, friends and constituents in terms of their safety and subsistence. I managed to use the lockdown period productively to complete work on my forthcoming books. However, these are still very difficult, disturbing and interesting times.
You have been very outspoken during the Covid-19 crisis, offering policy advice as well as constructive criticisms. Do you think the governments -federal and state -have given Nigerian citizens enough incentives to comply with the lockdown order imposed to control the ravaging Coronavirus from spreading in the country? Has the FGN and the States done well?
Obaze: Doing well is relative and depending on the applicable standards. If you posed that very question to Nigerians on the streets and markets, you will get very mixed responses; mostly negative. But my role as a private and attentive citizen is to offer honest advice and constructive criticism, without grandstanding or politicizing the issues. Both the Federal Government and State Governments have responded constructively to the Covid-19 pandemic within the scope of their governance abilities. But as a nation, our overall response has been very weak. Some States passed with flying colours, while some States failed woefully. We have also witnessed some draconian measures. But overall, we failed in healthcare delivery; we failed in communications; we failed in education and orientation; we failed in mobilization and logistics and we failed in our responsibility to protect the average citizen. As I’ve said before, the Covid-19 pandemic has debunked illusions, unravelled myths, and shredded soft power of big and small nations. It has upended normalcy and unfolded a very dysfunctional and chaotic world. Nigeria is no exception. In Nigeria, the Covid-19 revealed the waning strength of government.
The number of suspected Covid-19 positive cases, now at 4,611, is on the increase daily across Nigeria, what other measures should have been adopted by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control(NCDC), Federal and State governments to control the rising trend, vis-a-vis lock-down, curfew etc?
Obaze: There is no denying that Nigeria lost invaluable lead response time. We underestimated the power of this unseen enemy that respected no boundaries. As a nation, the pandemic caught Nigeria unawares and unearthed our limited national capacities and competencies in various sectors. Whether within the NCDC or outside, we had neither the vaccines nor ventilators. We also did not have isolation and treatment centres, despite the numerous University Teaching Hospitals in this country. The only practical option left to us, was containment and mitigation; and both required effective communications. But we also failed in that regard. Stark evidence exists of a huge trust deficit as reflected by the collective failure of our leaders in persuading the national population to comply with stipulated public safety measures. Also, the government’s inability to take the hardheaded decision to lock down the nation totally and longer, after putting the correct palliative and testing measures in place, was a clear policy and systemic failure. There was a clear absence of national resilience strategy and synergy. We have not utilized our scientists effectively or explored possible local remedies like Madagascar and Senegal. If not, why would Kano state export infected Almajiris to other states? Why would some states suppress or hide their infection rates? In terms of successes and failures, all the numbers are not in yet. People are still being infected daily, people are dying daily; thus the scope of our failure is still being reflected in the hard numbers of continuing infections and rising fatalities.
Painfully, we are not yet out of the woods and I’m deeply troubled that palliative and mitigation measures being put in place are largely transaction-driven. If not, why has FGN not disbursed funds to the States and the States not disbursed cash and food palliatives directly to the people? Where is NEMA, SEMA and the social welfare agencies? Regrettably, some policymakers and bureaucrats at federal and state levels see the response to the pandemic as business as usual; even as people are dying daily from infections and hunger. It’s most regrettable that the national leadership initially tackled the pandemic perfunctorily.
So how satisfied are you with the prosecution of the COVID-19 war by Nigeria? Also, there’s some controversy in some quarters over figures of the number of those who contracted Coronavirus in Nigeria. Some argue that bogus daily infection figures are released by the Federal Government just to get foreign aid. Is it all about making money as believed in some quarters?
Obaze: I’m far from satisfied. First, we must admit that the overall intervention at the Federal and State levels was mostly ad hoc, not holistic and therefore not robust. Since the Covid-19 mitigation measures started, a lot of figures have been bandied around; N2 trillion for the SIP palliatives, N500 billion economic stimuli package, N27 billion-plus raised by CACOVID Team, etc., yet the selective intervention and palliative measures on the ground are not commensurate with these amounts. It all seems like fuzzy math. Why would Lagos State get N10 billion in “technical support” and Kano State not get the same amount for “technical support” or “financial support” or “manpower support” or “facility support”, or whatever FGN wants to call it. Why hasn’t FGN disbursed mitigation funds equally among the affected 34 states? Why is the FGN undertaking the task of feeding school children at home? Those are local government responsibilities. Understandably, most people are now sceptical about FGN figures relating to monies donated and disbursed and even about the infection rates. The distrust gap is huge, more so as the overall fiscal response seems to be centrally managed. I get the sense that most of the responses we are witnessing are transaction-driven not public-interest driven. We have an extant cashless policy, yet FGN is dispensing cash publicly. There’s a glaring degree of opacity in accounting for Covid-19 funds at all levels, perhaps with a few exceptions. So the perception that it’s “all about making money” is not farfetched. Also, it borders on criminality for some public officials to attempt to get rich off the present national crisis.
Are you not worried that both the Federal and State governments are not giving accounts of COVID -19 funds?
Obaze: As I mentioned earlier, there is an element of opacity in the way the funds are being segregated and handled. This is quite in contrast to how the FGN handled the 2012 flood disaster. There was clarity and transparency in handling the funds and donations. Presently we read of and hear lots of donations and pledges being announced, but no transparent record of how the funds are being disbursed or spent. That amounts to fiscal irresponsibility. Some states have set up committees, published funds received and funds spent in the spirit of full disclosure. Others have not. Such dichotomy in fiduciary practices, duties and responsibilities has created room for speculation, for mischief and indeed for official malfeasance. The situation is sufficiently worrying.
You warned that unlocking Anambra without adequate preparations will spell doom. Nearly two weeks after Governor Obiano unlocked Anambra, which you described as “precipitate”, are you still nursing fears that the worst is yet to be over. As Anambra is at the moment active COVID-19 case free, does this call for celebration?
Obaze: As you know, I went out of my way to make a pronouncement on Anambra State’s Covid-19 policy trajectory. For some, it is extremely difficult to accept constructive criticisms. I don’t want to be a harbinger of bad news, but the grave implications of Anambra unlocking early might be sorely felt in the months ahead. Naturally, every success should be celebrated. However, we should do so with cautious optimism, since whatever celebration or relief that is being enjoyed now might be ephemeral. Again, I hope and pray that I’m wrong. It made no sense to unlock without testing; just as it made no sense to embark on lockdown without putting mitigating fiscal and subsistence palliative measures in place.
Without testing kits in many states of the federation, how do you rate the country’s effort in its fight against the Coronavirus? And with the situation of things in the Country, don’t you think the pandemic is likely to affect the political calendar in Nigeria?
Obaze: As a social scientist and policy expert, I analyze crises without sentiments. When there was no testing going on in Kano, I warned that FNG should focus on Kano, given its very dense demographics and see what is happening there now. I also warned that Nigeria will only begin to feel the impact of Covid-19 by July 2020; we are two months away from that juncture. Those States suppressing their infection rates should draw lessons from Kano, Gombe, Jigawa, Yobe and the Bauchi States. Fighting Covid-19 without testing is like building a house without a foundation. It’s only a matter of time for the collapse to happen. Like Lagos and Kano, Ibadan and Onitsha also have dense demographics and should be watched closely. As to your other question, electoral adjustments will have to be made. We have encountered a force majeure and the situation affects everyone equally. The Government and INEC will have to decipher how to handle scheduled elections. In adjusting the political calendar, if need be, some issues will be resolved legally and constitutionally. If we cannot hold elections, the redundancies built into the Electoral Act and the Constitution will have to be applied. Constitutional dictates will, of course, be supreme. So, no governor, for instance, will need to stay in office one day longer than stipulated. If all fails, we will resort to the “Doctrine of Necessity.”
How would you react to the increasing internal human migration and flouting of restriction of movement and lockdown ordered by federal and the various state governments as means of checking Corona Virus spread? Also, Anambra State Government mapped out measures — some shrouded in controversy- to help mitigate the spread of Coronavirus in the state, do you think the governor has done well in handling the situation?
Obaze: I spoke earlier about the absence of synergy and lack of coordination. I also talked about failure in communication and civic orientation. You cannot ask people who are uninformed to take their civic responsibility seriously. Our people feel that government lie to them all the time. If frequently, the government cries wolf; now there’s a wolf no one believes them. It ought to have been evident to the FGN and the States that a collaborative approach was needed. Going it alone was not an alternative. We seem to be closing the door of the barn long after the horses have bolted. Now the entire nation is infested. I can assure you that the 36 States of Nigeria bar none, now all have Covid-19 carriers, even if they are untested and unidentified. Monitoring and mitigation measures adopted by Anambra are not peculiar, other states like Rivers have done the same. The devil is in the style and details of implementation.
NCDC just revealed that Nigeria now has 4,399 confirmed Covid-19 cases. What do you suggest as a way out? FGN reportedly has attached distribution of palliatives to mandatory vaccination to curb the spread of Covid-19. Do you consider the vaccine safe as many are indicating that they will forego the palliatives and the vaccine?
Obaze: That is absolute balderdash. There is no known vaccine for Covid-19. And FGN certainly cannot make such a vaccine which does not exist mandatory.
Covid-19 is seen as a conspiracy directed against President Trump to trample the U.S. economy so he can lose grip and fail his second term bid. As a retired U.N. Diplomat, what is your view on this matter?
Obaze: This is another speculation that falls within the realm of conspiracy theory. Is Covid-19 pro-democracy or anti-democracy? Does the pandemic distinguish between democrats, socialists, and communists? Really, we ought not to dignify such assertions with answers.
Recently you tweeted “There was a vision and a promise. Now we know better about the road not taken! Quo Vadis Anambra?” Can you please expatriate?
Obaze: In 2017 Anambra people supposedly made a leadership choice, of which the end result was in reckless triumphal exuberance tagged “21 over 21”. If you recall, I had during my 2017 Governorship campaign told the Anambra electorate that the State was “broken and needed to be fixed.” Since it was broken physically and fiscally, I offered my vision and made a promise to turn the state around if given four years. The ruling powers said it was not so and hired my friend, Prof. Charles Soludo to give a lecture to legitimize and validate their false claims that all was well with Anambra. With the benefit of hindsight, is all well with Anambra? Can the incumbent administration say so? Can Prof. Soludo further validate the claim? And can the Anambra electorate say so? My tweet was a combination of a post mortem and SWOT analysis. In governance, politics and the public interest, we must be honest and avoid false and expedient narratives and those who peddle them.
There are rumours that the former CBN Governor, Prof. Charles Soludo was drafted into President Buhari’s Economic Advisory Team as a bargaining chip to get him to fly APC flag in next year’s governorship election. In that way, the party can use federal might to give him victory and take over Anambra. What’s your take on that?
Obaze: You have indicated that these are rumours, therefore very speculative. A lot of conspiracy theories abound in our politics. It serves no purpose whatsoever, except as academic exercise to explore them. This much is certain; APC like any other party will field a candidate from Anambra State. The people will decide if they want that candidate and party or not. Prof. Soludo has previously sought public office under APGA and PDP. If he elects to run under APC, that is his prerogative, after all, we’re in a democracy. Regardless of the party platform, he runs on, he will still subject himself to universal suffrage.
You were part of the team that produced the Blueprint for the Obiano administration. After six years in office, would you say the administration is meeting your expectations?
Obaze: My high expectations for continuity and sustainable development are hardly any different from that of the common man in Anambra, even if my disposition is. My expectations are anchored on certain realities. First, my role in and service to Anambra State is a matter of record. Even though I belong to PDP -an opposition party in the State – once the 2017 governorship election was over, my disposition was to allow the elected Governor to serve the State undistracted and unburdened, that way he would have no excuses. As you might have observed, I hardly ever commented publicly on Anambra State Government policies, good or bad. This was not because I did not have strong views, but because I considered the possibility of such comments being distractive, impolitic and misconstrued. I believe and still do, that the ultimate assessment of whether the incumbent governor has done well or not, belongs to the Anambra people, of which I’m just a lone voice. After six years and after eight years in office, the verdict will come from the Anambra people and history. Then, it cannot be varnished, reversed or amplified. And there will be several valid bases for comparison.
It looks like your party, PDP, has succumbed to the clamour for the next governor to come from Anambra South considering the number of aspirants that have indicated interest. Do you think the decision not to officially zone the office to any area will favour the party? What will be your reaction if any day the party makes a u-turn and zone the ticket and such arrangement doesn’t favour your ambition?
Obaze: The South Senatorial zone is not bereft of competent PDP politicians who can be good governors. What PDP needs is to put its best foot forward to wrestle power from the ruling party. For PDP to succeed, it must present its best candidate and a united front, the zone from which the candidate emerges notwithstanding. The risk we face is the possible polarization and fracturing of the party over the so-called zoning arrangements. If I recall correctly since 1999 PDP aspirants from the three Senatorial zones have always competed for the governorship ticket. It happened in 2013 and again in 2017, so I don’t think it will be any different in 2021. Yet the inherent danger will manifest if the South decides to allow their zone to scuttle the chances of a PDP candidate who is not from that zone. Were that to happen, the PDP will remain in the doghouse and opposition for another four years and perhaps, beyond. Personally, what I seek is good governance in Anambra. There are capable people in PDP who can govern Anambra well, of which I can humbly count myself as one. But I am not insensately ambitious. Politics is about service, not ego-tripping. And certainly, for me, politics has never been a do-or-die affair.
You referred to your forthcoming books. In 2017, you published Prime Witness, which assessed President Buhari’s early years in office. Your assessments in that book stand validated. What are the new books about?
Obaze: The first, Africa’s Vision is my second collection of poems. The second, Waning Strength of Government is on governance in Nigeria, with a focus on the diminution or the rule of law, ordered liberties and possible rise of illiberalism in our democracy. The third, Nigeria: Caught in the Whirlwind, which I’m co-authoring with a former U.N. colleague, Ambassador Eloho Otobo, is due out in the latter part of 2020. It is also on governance and explores how the weak democratic leadership combined with weak democratic institutions; continue to undermine our nation-building efforts and development.
Thank you so much for your time and insightful and lucid responses.
Obaze: The pleasure was mine. Thank you too.